Where did Aretha Franklin’s unforgettable vocal power come from?
I glimpsed a big part of the answer one summer night in 1968.
It was Friday, June 21, in Washington DC: Leaders of the Poor Peoples Campaign, trying to fulfill Dr. King’s last dream, had built a shantytown, called Resurrection City, on the national mall. But the camp, and the campaign, were mired in various difficulties. Yet on that Friday evening, some participants got a welcome, memorable spell of relief. I was there with a tape recorder, and this is the heart of what I saw and heard:
From Uncertain Resurrection, the Poor Peoples Washington Campaign:
Friday night a Campaign mass meeting was held at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church, where the church was full and the crowd unusually boisterous. The featured preacher of the evening was Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit. Rev. Franklin is the father of Miss Aretha Franklin, a very successful soul singer, and he was an old friend of Dr. King.
“I hope I can get somebody to pray with me tonight,” he began, warming them up, “because you know, I’m a Negro preacher, and I like to talk to people, and have people talk back to me.”
He paused while they roared their pleasure. “I want to talk to you tonight about ‘They Wouldn’t Bow.’
“Now we know that the God whom we serve is able to deliver us. But if He chooses not – if his Providence dictates that we must suffer, we still will not bow.”
He pointed at a girl dozing in the third row. “Now shake her right there so she can hear my sermon,” he said, chuckling. “I want her to stay awake at least til I get started….
“Basically,” he went on, “I’m from Main. I don’t mean the state of Maine, I mean the main part of Mississippi.” The people roared again, recognizing a fine performer when they heard one.
He led them through a summary of Babylon’s victory over Judah and the captivity that followed.
“And Nebudchadnezzor, in order to insure his reign [“Yeah!”] raped as it were the country of Judah. [“Well!”] They took away her soldiers; they took away her businessmen [“Yeah!”]; they took away her scholars; they took away even her leadership of religious thought. [“Well!”] …
“And of course they placed them in a ghetto in Babylon. And the Psalmist pictured it rather graphically, he said their situation was so awful that they felt like a composite national body [“Yeah!”] that had died: that its very skin, its sinew, its flesh had deteriorated [“Yeah!”] leaving only a national skeleton [“HmHm”]; and that their hearts had lost their song [“All right!”]
“The choir members left the choir [“Yeah!”] and the musicians hung up their harps on the willow [“Well, well well!”], and they refused to sing [“Yeah!”]. And uh, so that not only was there sadness and hope-less-ness, depravity or frustration [“Well!”], there was–for them –death….
“Are you praying?” [“Yeah!”]
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were prominent in the Babylonian king’s service, were turned in by spies for not bowing to the local gods:
“So the spies reported to the king, ‘These native Jews, they did not recognize the law!’
“‘But you know, there are higher laws [“Preach Sir!” “Come on!”]. There are higher laws. There are laws and there are loyalties [“Yeah!”] above patriotic laws [“Break it up!”] . . .
“And that loyalty is to God.” [“Yeah!”]
He peered down at his audience in mock rebuke:
“You don’t hear what I’m sayin.’” [Laughter.]
The three were arrested and called before the king, who had been their benefactor and thought the matter was a misunderstanding. He tried to clear it up by asking them to make the ritual motions for him at a signal.
“But they said, ‘King, we’re not gon’ bow. [“All right!”] We didn’t misunderstand. We knew what the law was. [“Well!”] It wasn’t a mistake, it was a de-li-be-rate thing. [“Yeah!”] We understood it thoroughly. [“Yeah!”] We didn’t intend to bow! [Cheers and applause.]
“So there’s no need of wasting any time goin’ back over this whole thing [“Yeah!”], ‘cause if you go back over it and we hear it, we’re still not gon’ bow [Cheers and applause.]
“… And of course, they were taken to a fiery furnace –
“You don’t hear me. [“Yeah!” “Come on!”]
“Somebody said the other day, that our republic is making the mistake of putting law above justice –
“You don’t hear me. [“Come on!”]
“I feel like if the state was as concerned about justice as they are about law and order [“Come on now!”] there wouldn’t be any need for Resurrection City. [Applause.]
“But they wouldn’t bow… and of course… they were led down to a fiery furnace…. And of course, the power structure will put you in jail [“Yeah!”]; they will take you to the electric chair [“Yessir!” “Take your time!”]; they will shoot you down or have you shot down [“Yessir!” “That’s right!”]; they will subject you to in-dig-nities and humiliations [“Come on!”], and reduce you to poverty circumstances. [“Yeah!”]
“But I think, all of us should make one firm resolution today: we’re not gon’ bow! [Extended applause.]
“Now God has a way of deliverance. [“Oh Lord!”] In this particular case, He beat those young men to the furnace [“Yes He did!”] –
“You don’t hear me.
“But if you must face the jails [“If you must!”]; if you must face the mob [“Oh yeah!”]; if you must face [“If you must!”] the dogs; if you must face the gallopin’ horses [“Yeah!”], you oughta make up in your mind, you’re not gonna bow!” [Cheers and applause.]
At this point Franklin’s delivery crossed a line between speaking and singing as he rose towards a crescendo, and the responses from the crowd became tumultuous and almost continuous, beyond hope of reproduction in print. The roots of his famous daughter’s vocal style could be heard reverberating in his voice.
At the climax, he suddenly turned and sat down, leaving the crowd in mid-cheer.
But it was only a flourish; he was up again in a few seconds, shouting and singing to them and with them, finally leading the church in the hymn, “I’m Gonna Trust in the Lord Until I Die,” and then sitting down exhausted, dramatically wiping his streaming face with a large white handkerchief.
It was a magnificent performance, unequaled during the Campaign in brilliance of delivery or frenzy of response. It was the closest the Washington mass meetings ever came to the kind of exultation that makes a movement the center of a community’s attention the way it was in Selma, Alabama three years earlier.
This excerpt is from the 50th anniversary edition of Uncertain Resurrection, available from Amazon.